A shooter that’s as invested in creating a smart, nuanced survival experience as it is fun, action-packed combat.
Even though PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is still in Early Access, it’s already a groundbreaking online shooter. Each game starts the same way, but its remarkable ability to feel like a fresh new adventure every round has kept me coming back for hours on end. It manages to approach the Battle Royale-style death match made popular by games like DayZ with relative simplicity, without sacrificing the essence of the hardcore survival sim, creating a tight, focused, and no-frills experience that places it leagues above the competition.
Battlegrounds wastes no time putting you right in the middle of the action, as up to 100 players join a server and pick their moment to jump out of a plane and parachute onto a large 8×8 km island. Even this first act is a critical decision and must be part of your strategy: jumping early lets you hit the ground first, giving you a jump on the competition, but may also place you farther from the center of the arena where the fighting must inevitably funnel towards. Jumping late might give you some distance from other players, giving you some early breathing room before entering the fray. Jumping right into the center, especially in large cities where most players drop, will place you right in the middle of the action.
The tension mounts during the descent as you get a good look at the swarm of players in your vicinity, but things really pick up the moment you hit the ground, as everybody scrambles for weapons and gear and the killing begins right from the get-go. Backpacks for holding more items, a handful of protective gear like helmets and police vests, healing items, melee weapons, and a good mix of firearms are in good supply.
Item distribution is randomized, but you can’t count on finding a good gun early keeping you safe. It isn’t out of the ordinary for someone with only a pistol to take down someone with a fully loaded SCAR-L assault rifle, since good gear is only half the battle – the other half is wit. As players outsmart each other in deadly games of cat and mouse, those still standing are forced into ever-closer proximity within the confines of a deadly, ever-shrinking force-field until just one is left alive. Victory is an exhilarating reward, matched only by the suspense that emerges from the battle to achieve it. But even if you die early, jumping into a new game is always quick and easy. (Kill cams are wisely omitted to avoid cheating, but you do have the option of entering spectate mode for surviving teammates.)
Balances exciting action-packed encounters with tense moments of exploration.
The deadly, moving force-field that contains the arena and occasional airstrikes marked with red on the minimap add a consistent sense of purpose, and with it, an exciting set of options. You might want to prioritize reaching the center to avoid each incremental reduction in size of the survivable area, move slowly along the borders to pick off stragglers as they rush into the open to avoid the oncoming doom, or even hide in a building until you absolutely have to move, letting everyone else kill each other so you don’t have to. An aggressive approach is just as viable as a cautious defense, and the practicality of both playstyles is refreshingly liberating, bringing new sets of challenges that are just as fun to plan around and tackle as the next.
The incentives to stay on the move no matter your chosen pace forces ever more dangerous encounters with increasingly skilled (or lucky) survivors, condensing the action and ending a match after around 20 minutes, before it can get bogged down by campers or other distractions. Action isn’t hard to find in Battlegrounds if you’re looking for it, and impossible to avoid for long when you’re not, but it manages to put enough space between encounters to keep those quiet, tense moments we know and love from games like DayZ intact.
Changing It Up
While the rules are always the same, factors like where you choose to land, which items spawn where, or how fast you can find a weapon or a backpack or a scope keep every match new and exciting. A large map and an abundance of loot means hunting for a weapon isn’t a frustrating task, but instead an opportunity to weigh your options and pick your approach for the round. This not only keeps the playing field balanced and fun for everyone, but ripe for all sorts of thrilling confrontations.
A smart, nuanced survival experience.
You might find yourself involved in a frantic shootout in the woods, or on either end of a deadly hunt across one of the island’s many cities and towns. You might even find yourself holed up in an attic, listening for the slightest creak or scrape to indicate a nearby presence, shotgun in hand. The use of sound to build tension and alert you to nearby enemies is one of the ways Battlegrounds forces you to stay attentive and tactical rather than treating every round like a Call of Duty-style shoot ‘em up. Play long enough, and you can learn the subtleties that tip off when another player has been in a place before you — an open door or an unusually dense or sparse pile of mismatched loot are telltale signs you should be watching your back. All these layers merge to build a shooter that’s as invested in creating a smart, nuanced survival experience as it is fun, action-packed combat.
The entire dynamic of both exploration and combat changes drastically by grouping up in the pre-game lobby. (Teaming up after you’re in-game is considered cheating, and a potentially bannable offense.) Playing solo brings certain elements to the formula that going in with a partner doesn’t, and the same goes for trios and four-player squads. There might be more freedom and greater opportunity for stealth in going alone, but a well-coordinated team has more potential for pulling off exciting ambushes and vehicular assaults.
The gunplay itself is also great – firearms feel good to shoot and are impressively balanced, even in Early Access. And while Battlegrounds does retain that military-sim clunkiness that’s become synonymous with the genre, it’s just smoothed out enough to keep combat and movement satisfying and accessible to newcomers. A couple of handy hotkeys to cycle weapons, switch between third- or first-person perspective, and toggle auto or burst fire for your gun are most of what you need to know. The simple and intuitive UI is also particularly refined, which makes looting bodies and swapping items with teammates as easy as a quick click and drag. A number of quality-of-life features round out even Battlegrounds’ roughest edges: being able to access your inventory and map while on the move and a generous leniency with fall damage stand out as some of the most valuable.
The Road Ahead
A relatively smooth experience despite some Early Access bugs.
Of course, Battlegrounds is still Early Access, so it does have a few problems you should be aware of. I’ve dealt with annoying glitches such as pieces of loot I couldn’t pick up, wonky collision that has gotten me momentarily stuck in doorways, and performance issues like bad latency, but game-breaking bugs are fortunately rare. The exception to that is an apparently small group of players who have reported frequent crashes, something that will hopefully be resolved once it’s fully launched. Overall, it’s a relatively smooth experience, especially when compared to most early access games that have only been available for a month or so. While the gameplay Battlegrounds offers now is strong enough to stand on its own, additional features I’d love to see in the final version include custom servers, new maps, and a separate practice range for getting a feel for individual guns.
Custom servers or even mod support (which has been promised) could allow for things like first-person-only games that would remove the advantages granted by a third-person camera for those looking for a greater challenge, different weather modes, night games, and custom maps. Even better would be some completely different maps (also promised) – the current 8×8 island is an awesome and balanced map as it stands, but a little change of scenery could only help Battlegrounds’ longevity. And while Battlegrounds does have something of a shooting range during its chaotic, free-for-all loading screen, the chance to spend substantial time with its lineup of firearms outside of a live multiplayer environment would be vital for those looking to learn the subtleties of each weapon and up their skill level without getting shot at.
Early Access Verdict
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds has taken the genre popularized by games like DayZ and boiled it down to only its best parts, making for quick and accessible rounds of pure, hassle-free survival-based action. Even though it’s as rough around the edges as the early access label implies, it’s absolutely worth playing right now. We’ll continue to play as it gets closer to a full launch, and revisit this review with updated thoughts once it’s out of early access.